AcuteCare Telemedicine Blog

A Specialty Designed For Virtual Care

According to a recent article in the Scientific American, Alaska patients are more likely to find an astronaut than a geneticist. William Oefelein, who piloted the space shuttle Discovery, retired there, but the state of more than 700,000 people does not have a single medical geneticist to call its own. Instead, patients must wait until one flies in from Oregon around 4000 kilometers away. Six times a year a geneticist or two comes to Alaska and visits a few clinics, seeing about eight patients a day, diagnosing genetic causes for developmental delays such as fragile X syndrome or discussing hereditary cancer risk.

New advances in telecommunication technology are improving access to medical specialties for residents of regions well away from established urban centers, especially for specialties that do not always require hands-on interaction between a patient and a practitioner.  A virtual meeting with a geneticist is not as personable as a face to face encounter but those who are utilizing telemedicine to reach out to their patients from afar are reporting high satisfaction rates of among patients who are tapping such services. This may not be surprising to many because in an age when virtual chats are relatively commonplace, videoconferencing for genetic consultation, or telegenetics, is becoming a logical extension of what people already do with their Webcams and smartphones. The patients are already familiar with the technology and have racked up considerable experience socializing and shopping via the internet.

The lack of reasonable access to medical specialties is not limited to the state of Alaska. In nearly every state there are enclaves of population that are located five to six hours away from advanced or specialized medical centers, it is clear that the need is out there and the patients are willing and able to avail themselves of the convenience. The fact that more services like telegenetics are not more commonly available is not always due to usual obstacles like insurance reimbursements, licensing requirements or lack of necessary band width and supporting technology. To be successful, the programs require the willing participation of doctors and clinicians on the patients end in order to help facilitate a successful encounter. Even in this fast-paced, high-tech environment there are many healthcare practitioners that continue to be reluctant to treat patients in the virtual world. The problem would appear to be one of acceptance in some cultures.

Telemedical consultation by physicians in specialties in which there is little need for physical contact with patients is one area where new communication technologies would appear to be made to order. The obvious advantages of decreasing the costs and increasing the access to care are evident, even to the casual untrained observer.

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